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Evaluating Appeals to Ethos, Logos, and Pathos

Evaluating Appeals to Ethos, Logos, and Pathos

Introduction

As a reader and a listener, it is fundamental that you be able to recognize how writers and speakers depend upon ethoslogos, and pathos in their efforts to communicate. As a communicator yourself, you will benefit from being able to see how others rely upon ethos, logos, and pathos so that you can apply what you learn from your observations to your own speaking and writing.

Evaluate an Appeal to Ethos

When you evaluate an appeal to ethos, you examine how successfully a speaker or writer establishes authority or credibility with her intended audience. You are asking yourself what elements of the essay or speech would cause an audience to feel that the author is (or is not) trustworthy and credible.

A good speaker or writer leads the audience to feel comfortable with her knowledge of a topic. The audience sees her as someone worth listening to—a clear or insightful thinker, or at least someone who is well-informed and genuinely interested in the topic.

Some of the questions you can ask yourself as you evaluate an author’s ethos may include the following:

  • Has the writer or speaker cited her sources or in some way made it possible for the audience to access further information on the issue?
  • Does she demonstrate familiarity with different opinions and perspectives?
  • Does she provide complete and accurate information about the issue?
  • Does she use the evidence fairly? Does she avoid selective use of evidence or other types of manipulation of data?
  • Does she speak respectfully about people who may have opinions and perspectives different from her own?
  • Does she use unbiased language?
  • Does she avoid excessive reliance on emotional appeals?
  • Does she accurately convey the positions of people with whom she disagrees?
  • Does she acknowledge that an issue may be complex or multifaceted?
  • Does her education or experience give her credibility as someone who should be listened to on this issue?

Some of the above questions may strike you as relevant to an evaluation of logos as well as ethos—questions about the completeness and accuracy of information and whether it is used fairly. In fact, illogical thinking and the misuse of evidence may lead an audience to draw conclusions not only about the person making the argument but also about the logic of an argument.

Recognizing a Manipulative Appeal to Ethos

In a perfect world, everyone would tell the truth and we could depend upon the credibility of speakers and authors. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. You would expect that news reporters would be objective and tell new stories based upon the facts. Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and Brian Williams all lost their jobs for plagiarizing or fabricated part of their news stories. Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize was revoked after it was discovered that she made up “Jimmy,” an eight-year old heroin addict (Prince, 2010). Brian Williams was fired as anchor of the NBC Nightly News for exaggerating his role in the Iraq War.

Others have become infamous for claiming academic degrees that they didn’t earn as in the case of Marilee Jones. At the time of discovery, she was Dean of Admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After 28 years of employment, it was determined that she never graduated from college (Lewin, 2007). However, on her website (http://www.marileejones.com) she is still promoting herself as “a sought after speaker, consultant and author” (para. 1) and “one of the nation’s most experienced College Admissions Deans” (para. 2).

Beyond lying about their own credentials, authors may employ a number of tricks or fallacies to lure you to their point of view. Some of the more common techniques are described below. Others may be found in the appendix. When you recognize these fallacies being committed you should question the credibility of the speaker and the legitimacy of the argument. If you use these when making your own arguments, be aware that they may undermine or destroy your credibility.

FALLACIES THAT MISUSE APPEALS TO ETHOS

Ad hominem: attacking the person making an argument rather than the argument itself.

Example: “Of course that doctor advocates vaccination—he probably owns stock in a pharmaceutical company.”

False authority: relying on claims of expertise when the claimed expert (a) lacks adequate background/credentials in the relevant field, (b) departs in major ways from the consensus in the field, or (c) is biased, e.g., has a financial stake in the outcome.

Example: “Dr. X is an engineer, and he doesn’t believe in global warming.”

Guilt by association: linking the person making an argument to an unpopular person or group.

Example: “My opponent is a card-carrying member of the ACLU.”

Poisoning the well: undermining an opponent’s credibility before he or she gets a chance to speak.

Example: “The prosecution is going to bring up a series or so-called experts who are getting a lot of money to testify here today.”

Transfer fallacy: associating the argument with someone or something popular or respected; hoping that the positive associations will “rub off” onto the argument.

Examples: In politics, decorating a stage with red, white, and blue flags and bunting; in advertising, using pleasant or wholesome settings as the backdrop for print or video ads.

Name-calling: labeling an opponent with words that have negative connotations in an effort to undermine the opponent’s credibility.

Example: “These rabble-rousers are nothing but feminazis.”

Plain folk: presenting yourself as (or associating your position with) ordinary people with whom you hope your audience will identify; arguers imply that they or their supporters are trustworthy because they are ‘common people’ rather than members of the elite.

Example: “Who would you vote for—someone raised in a working-class neighborhood who has the support of Joe the Plumber or some elitist whose daddy sent him to a fancy school?”

Testimonial fallacy: inserting an endorsement of the argument by someone who is popular or respected but who lacks expertise or authority in the area under discussion.

Example: “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV”—a famous example of a celebrity endorsement for a cough syrup (Deis, 2011, n.p.).